Jeffrey K. Walker hails from what was once the Glass Container Capital of the World, now just another dying town in Illinois. Jeff has had six careers—in his words, he just can’t seem to hold a job. A retired Air Force B-52 navigator-turned-JAG, Jeff served in Bosnia and Afghanistan, planned the Kosovo air campaign and later ran a State Department program in Baghdad. He’s been shelled, rocketed and sniped by various groups, all with bad aim. He’s lived in ten states and three foreign countries, managing to get graduate degrees from Syracuse, Georgetown and Harvard along the way. An attorney and professor, Jeff taught legal history at Georgetown, law of war at William & Mary and criminal and international law while an assistant dean at St. John’s University. After leaving New York City and returning to Williamsburg, he began his sixth career as a writer. He has published two novels in his World War One and 1920’s trilogy, both receiving awards of distinction. Most recently, both None of Us the Same and Truly Are the Free were 2017 best fiction finalists in the UK-based The Wishing Shelf Book Awards; both are currently long-listed for the 2018 Goethe Award. None of Us the Same went on to receive the 2017 bronze medal for best fiction. Jeff and his wife, Kathy, with whom he’s moved nineteen times, have three children scattered around the US and one grandson who lives much too far away. Jeff has many hidden talents, but one which he will proudly reveal is that he has never been beaten at Whack-a-Mole.
1. What is your overall vision for the Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy? That’s a very interesting title, by the way.
The overarching theme for the trilogy, all set 1914-1926, is to exam the aftereffects from the horrors and destruction of war. Each volume addresses a different aspect of these changes—the first, None of Us the Same, examines the impact on the individual; the second, Truly Are the Free, looks at social and cultural changes. I wish I could take credit for the trilogy title. It’s a line from the hauntingly beautiful poem “The Dead” by one of the War Poets, Rupert Brooke—“…poured out the red / Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be/ Of work and joy.” Sadly, he didn’t survive the war, dying in 1915.
2. Have you accomplished your vision, so far, with the first two books (None of Us the Same and Truly Are the Free)?
So far, so good. I really like how the characters developed and opened up in the first book—and in keeping with showing the impact of war on the individuals involved, I was quite relentless in breaking them down. There’s a lot of sadness and tragedy in None of Us the Same, but also hopefulness. The second book hits on the perniciousness of racism, even in such desperate times when every soldier was needed to man the trenches. I also was able to delve into the great impact on societal norms of women’s roles and sexuality—keeping in mind that France, for example, lost almost a third of its men ages 18-30.
3. Do the characters in the books carry on throughout the trilogy, or do you follow different individuals in each book?
The trilogy does share characters. However, I feature different ones in each volume. For example, two minor characters from Book 1 are the main characters in Book 2. I also add some new characters into the mix. So, for example, in the second book, my American main character picks up a French love interest who is mentioned anonymously in just one line in Book 1. And I planted “Easter eggs” in the books for those who decide to read all three, to provide some “Ohhhh, I remember THAT” moments.
4. This trilogy takes place in World War I and the 1920s, I believe. What do you find so interesting about that period of history that you chose to write about it?
The First World War was the first truly industrial conflict, proving that if you can mass produce Model T Fords or Edison lightbulbs, you can just as easily mass produce machine guns and artillery shells. And no one saw it coming. The depth of the tragedy was very appealing to me, as was the fact that it’s the centenary of the War. As for the 1920s, it had everything, right? Prohibition and jazz, avant-garde artists and flappers, Lost Generation writers and art deco. I had way too much fun playing in the Roaring Twenties—and I’m not quite done.
5. Tell us about the third book in the series, your work-in progress. The title for example (if you’re willing to disclose) and whether you feel the story will bring a satisfactory close to what you set out to do when you started the trilogy.
The third book, No Hero’s Welcome, is in revision, but it feels good so far. It’s set in Ireland from the Easter Rising through the War of Independence and Civil War, dealing with the tectonic political changes set in motion in Ireland—and by extension, throughout the entire British Empire—by the War. The story is set almost entirely in Dublin and within the family of the female protagonist from None of Us the Same. So it’s been both comfortable and enjoyable catching up with the Brannigans. I also hid a lot of “Easter eggs” in the first two books regarding characters and events in Ireland, so I have to make sure I deliver on all of them. As to whether No Hero’s Welcome will bring the curtain down the way I want, it’s a little early to know. I’m stuck, for example, on whether to include an epilogue chapter to tie things up with the characters that run throughout the three volumes. I’ll have to decide that soon, however, since this final volume is tentatively scheduled to go on sale next St. Patrick’s Day.
6. Has your vision for the trilogy changed by virtue of getting this far in the actual writing?
I suppose it can’t help but change in some ways. Overall, I’ve stuck fairly close to my intended arcs, both for each book and across the trilogy. I’m an unapologetic “plotter”—versus a “pantser,” as in fly by the seat of one’s pants—as a writer, so I’ve been working to an outline since the beginning. Of course, the second and third books were only roughly outlined when I began—really not much more than a three-color-coded timeline chart—but that was enough to keep things coherent and moving in the direction I’d intended from the start.
7. What good, if any, can come from the ravages of war? For example, you mention in your description of None of Us the Same that the experiences of Jack, Will and Deirdre brought them together.
On the macro level, I’d say precious little direct good comes from the ravages of war. But what I’ve hoped to show with my fiction is that out of the ashes, the human spirit can create something new and often better, even at the individual level. For example, each of the three main characters in None of Us the Same enters the War with some individual characteristic that leads them to the edge of personal devastation. Passing through the crucible of the War in some way frees them from these encumbrances and allows them to come out the other end as changed—hopefully for the better—people.
8. My understanding is that prejudice and discrimination play a role in the trilogy. How so?
This theme plays out most starkly in the second book, Truly Are the Free. I took a white American officer who’d volunteered with the Newfoundland Regiment when the War broke out in 1914—not an unusual occurrence historically—and called him home for assignment to a “colored” regiment when the USA entered the War in 1917—also historically accurate. This allowed me to use the 369th US Infantry, “Harlem’s Hellfighters,” as the vehicle for examining the institutionalized racism within the US military and how hard these men had to struggle to get a chance to fight. Since General Pershing wouldn’t allow black troops in his white combat divisions, he fobbed off the 369th on the French Army. The French were thrilled to have them and put the 369th into the trenches immediately. It turns out the Hellfighters spent longer under fire than any other American unit and covered themselves with glory, winning over a hundred Croix de guerre, the highest French military decoration. Then they returned to the States, right into some of the worst race rioting in the nation’s history—the infamous Red Summer of 1919. More accurately, this was overwhelmingly white violence against blacks. As one of my characters says, “I saw men die, beat the Germans. And nothing has changed here?”
9. Your history is wide and varied. What experiences do you feel contributed to your role as a writer?
I agree with Tennyson’s Ulysses—“I am a part of all that I have met.” I suppose one of the things that’s helped me most as a writer is that my “wide and varied” background has taught me not to fear new things. Let’s face it, writing fiction can be terrifying. You’re really putting yourself naked out there with 95,000 words of your own invention. If readers hate the book, it’s all on you.
Here’s one very specific example drawn from my firsthand experiences. One of my main characters has a decidedly difficult relationship with his father and has to face him on his deathbed. Although I didn’t realize it as I was writing, the physicality of that scene was heavily influenced by an experience I had as a military lawyer. I was called one evening to the base hospital, where a retired Navy man was dying of emphysema. We had very conflicting paper in his records regarding his “do not resuscitate” instructions, so I found myself at his bedside asking him if he wanted us to let him die. He could hardly breathe and we had to remove his oxygen mask to understand his words, which also meant I had to ask him several times. It was excruciating and so very sad—he passed just a few hours later.
10. Please speak, in particular, about any firsthand experiences you have had overseas with war and violence.
I’ve traveled to 49 states and 65 countries, which has given me a deep well of impressions from which to draw. I’ve spent time in every country I wrote in the books. I also spent 20 years in the Air Force and flew bombers as a young officer, which helped me with the relationships, interactions, and dialogue of the soldiers in my books. And I’ve been sniped, shelled and rocketed—thankfully by people with really bad aim.
I spent a lot of time working the Balkans in the ’90s while I was in the Air Force. I was legal advisor to the NATO air headquarters for six months and then went in on the ground with the first group of NATO forces when we took over from the UN in 1995. I collected witness statements from victims of concentration camps, ethnic cleansings, rape houses. I tracked war criminals, helped search for mass graves. It was both the most horrible and the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done. The thing I took away from that was the bone-chilling realization of just how tissue-thin the veneer of civilization really is. This was a reasonably prosperous European country—and it all came apart in a matter of a few weeks, with neighbors slaughtering neighbors, whole villages wiped off the map, the cruelest abuses. If it could happen there, it could literally happen anywhere. Then more than a decade later, I went to Baghdad as a civilian to run a big criminal justice reform project for the US State Department. Suicide bombings, mortar attacks, IEDs, kidnappings. Another rather prosperous and modern country, and it all came unglued. Those two experiences taught me a lot about the horrors of war and the utter depravity of which even ordinary people are capable.
11. At what point in your career did you decide you wanted to write fiction? Was it a single moment, an epiphany of sorts, or is it something you’ve always wanted to do?
As an attorney and ex-law professor, I’ve been writing professionally most of my adult life. This meant I already had the mechanics, the technical chops, of a writer. Probably as far back as college, maybe even high school, I’ve felt the pull to write fiction—although some of my former opposing counsel might tell you I’ve been writing fiction all along. When we decided to flee New York City, where I’d been teaching law for five years, my wife said, “You’ve always wanted to write fiction. Why don’t you take a year and do just that?” It took me about ten seconds to decide that was a very brilliant idea. That year of writing full-time was a watershed, allowing me to get a lot of words onto paper. I took None of Us the Same all the way from a first sentence to a finished manuscript, as well as bringing Truly Are the Free to a third draft. I’ve slowed down since then because I’m doing some legal consulting on the side again, but it looks like I can probably turn out one book a year for the foreseeable future.
12. And now for my most serious question – What’s the deal with Whack-a-Mole?
Absolutely true. I’ve never been beaten at Whack-a-Mole. It’s my idiot savant skill. I have no idea where it comes from. I’ve never been a remarkable athlete or anything. I guess it’s just an eye-hand coordination thing with a big puffy mallet. I was once banned for a day from the arcade at Hershey Park for hustling Whack-a-Mole. It was a dollar to play, then if you won, you not only got your choice of a stuffed animal, you got your next game free. And that was their mistake. I never lose, so I kept playing on that first dollar and took most of their stuffed animals. I gave them away to random kids. After nine or ten times, a manager came up and quietly asked me to leave the arcade area. I’m assuming they changed their “stuffed animal plus free game” rule after me.
Questions for Jeff? Leave them in the comments section below.
As a reminder, the first two books of the Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy, None of Us the Same and Truly Are the Free are available on Amazon. Connect with Jeffrey K. Walker on Twitter and Facebook, or visit his website.
Click here to read other contributions in Jay Lemming’s interview series with authors of literary and contemporary fiction.